“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.
Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film. Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling. If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”
The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke. I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).
For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms. The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories). In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.” In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY